How Social Media Hurt, Then Saved, My College Minyan

by Joshua Ull

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After growing up in a thriving Conservative synagogue where I attended Hebrew school, was active in USY, and was motivated to participate in USCJ’s Nativ College Leadership gap year program in Israel, I was more than ready to jump into collegiate Jewish life. Unfortunately, it seemed that those around me were not.

When I arrived at college in the fall of 2013, it became evident that the Jewish community I had heard so much about from online articles, alumni messages, and stories from friends was very different from advertised. I was eager to get involved, bubbling with enthusiasm to use the tools I’d gained to help contribute to the school’s sacred space. But my fellow peer leaders were incredibly pessimistic about anything associated with Conservative Judaism for college students.

With every programming attempt came a discussion over what to label it, how to avoid turning people away, and how we could be more inclusive. Allegedly, pluralism was the only thing that would sell, and those associated with a “dying” movement felt pressured to drop their background at the door to prevent walls of exclusion from forming. The negativity my new friends associated with the institutions that had helped me develop into the passionate Jew I am today, came from what they had read online but never experienced for themselves. In fact, the Judaism they practiced, the egalitarian services they loved to attend, and the nusachim (tunes) they used for prayer all stemmed from the substantial history of the very denomination they feared.

Whether it’s never embracing rainfall because your electronic device told you to stay inside, or allowing trending topics on the Internet to influence you without formulating your own opinions, our world of constantly beeping and buzzing technology often causes us to lose sight of the realities staring us in the face. Pessimistic blog posts might be brutally honest, but they neglect the success stories that Conservative Judaism produces on a daily basis.

Following a semester of lonely internal struggles and questioning, I was shocked to find that the solutions to my frustrations lay within the same realm that had brought me down – cyberspace. I turned to my phone and computer to find answers on how to convince my new peers to not be afraid of a denomination. From United Synagogue’s Teen Learning Department staff, to my network of former USYers, I learned how other people had dealt with similar challenges, and I ended up with a web of interlocking ideas for improving my situation. Something as simple as a Facebook brainstorming group, a monthly call across the country, or connecting with innovative rabbis can now transform my outlook.

As my year progressed, I saw tangible change. We succeeded in expanding services, to include the first-ever Conservative Saturday morning option every few months. With a warmer, more welcoming atmosphere, and a new-found attitude of confidence about the Judaism we were observing, more like-minded students were attracted to join us, and our reputation is turning around.

The fact is we must all learn to look up from our devices and draw conclusions from lived experiences. Still, it’s imperative to explore the positive sides of these inventions, so that we can expand our reach and continue to foster a movement of inspired, thriving kehillot both in towns and on campus. Together we can reverse the struggle our youth face when leaving the comfort of their home communities by supporting initiates to create a Conservative Judaism that rings with collegiate spirit and positivity.

Joshua Ull is a sophomore at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A former USY International President, this was his second summer staffing the USY on Wheels program for teens.